BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL
For the Sun-Times
AUSTIN, Texas -- South by Southwest is often about discovering new sounds, but sometimes you're well advised to stop chasing what's next and listen to what came before.
Opportunities to hear influential older artists abound in Austin this year, among them Shoes on Wednesday, the Sound City Players last night and Zombies, True Believers and others still to come. But no band here--and few if any in American pop history--boasts a greater legacy of artistic influence, commercial success and cultural taboo-breaking than the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
Nominally a group of session players, the musicians informally known as the Swampers were much more than that. Beginning in the mid-1960s, they wrote, recorded or produced songs with dozens of iconic artists. From a humble corner of northeast Alabama, they not only churned out chart-topping hits but helped define the sound of soul music and bridge cultural divides, bringing together white and black artists and blending the genres of rock and R&B.
Their SXSW set was a journey through this storied past. The six-piece band eased in with versions of "Mustang Sally"--a hit for Wilson Pickett--and Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," both led by guitarist and singer Will McFarlane, who with only 30-plus years in the Swampers is a relative newcomer. Spooner Oldham sang "I'm Your Puppet" and "Sweet Inspiration," both tunes he wrote, and played his signature Hammond organ here and throughout.
Guitarist Jimmy Johnson took the spotlight in "Brown Sugar," among the tracks he produced for the Rolling Stones on Sticky Fingers. And bassist David Hood (known to a younger generation as the father of Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson) powered the low end of "Respect Yourself," just one of the hits the Staple Singers recorded in Muscle Shoals.
The only downsides were the set's brevity and low profile. A proper celebration of the Muscle Shoals sound, one that reunited these musicians with some of the singing stars they backed, could have been a headline attraction at one of the festival's top venues. Instead, the under-appreciated giants played for little more than half an hour in a makeshift tent. Anyone wanting more will have to check out the new Muscle Shoals documentary that screened at SXSW and should be available later this year.
Next stop in the time machine was a decade later and a continent away, as the Specials transported their crowd to the U.K. circa 1980. The set was strictly a history lesson, every song drawn from the first two landmark albums that elevated the band--an integrated outfit playing 2-tone, a punk take on Jamaican ska music laced with biting lyrics about nationalism, consumerism and authority--as counters to what they called the concrete jungle of British cities split by lines of race and class.
With no such stakes in the streets of Austin, here it was just terrific party music. The floor was packed, arms flailing and feet pogoing to "Too Much Too Young," "Monkey Man," "Message to You, Rudy" and more. The live-wire guitars of Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation tangled, Farfisa organ trilled and Horace Panter bobbed around the stage with his bass. Vocalist Terry Hall just gripped the microphone stand and sang, but his dour look didn't dissuade the crowd from dancing and singing along.
Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago music critic.